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Part 4: Life After Infidelity

Understanding the Meaning of an Affair;
Rebuilding Trust in a Relationship

This chapter focuses on repairing a relationship that has endured one or multiple affairs. Infidelity can cause immense pain and hurt to the deceived partner once the affair has been discovered or disclosed. As discussed earlier in this blog series, a person who has an affair is often confronted with their own transgression while simultaneously longing and yearning for something they may not even yet fully understand themselves. Affairs often become a gateway to discover what those missing parts might be. Healing and recovery from an affair takes time and effort. It can be a complex, painful and lengthy process, but one that can lead to a better, deeper and renewed sense of love and understanding in a relationship or marriage. This chapter offers a broad overview of that process, delving into some areas that are important to address in a relationship that is repairing from infidelity.

If infidelity is understood as a systemic event, we can perceive it more holistically and thoughtfully. We may then even respectfully gain a dual perspective of the lived experiences of both the deceived and the transgressor. The question no longer becomes “is it right or wrong? … or good or bad?”, but rather raises a question of humanity. In order to understand infidelity, one has to understand and appreciate the depths of experiences of the transgressor as well as the deceived. Both parties experience hurt (to different degrees), and both parties bear loss. The restoration of a marriage post affair has to integrate and leave space for both sides to be heard and accounted for. Infidelity will redefine a relationship, but it doesn't necessarily have to redefine the entire relationship.

When an affair has been exposed, the transgressor has to decide if he or she wants to save the relationship. If yes, how much and at what cost? The same question can be asked of the deceived partner. How important is the relationship and what will it take to recover from the aftermath of an affair? First and foremost, the person who had the affair will need to emerge from the intoxication of the affair. In most situations, the material facts of the affair have been disclosed by this point. In order to move forward we must find the meaning behind the affair, and how to rebuild trust in the relationship. None of this will begin to make sense until the person who had the affair has taken accountability and acknowledged his or her actions.

Admission of the act of betrayal and harm to the relationship or marriage is essential, or the repair process will almost inevitably stall and not progress further. After the transgressor has fully taken responsibility for their part, he or she should also acknowledge what the affair DID to the deceived partner. Not all people feel guilty about having an affair. Some may feel guilty for hurting their partner, but they don't necessarily feel guilty about having the affair. This distinction is important in understanding the transgressor's motives and intentions for having the affair. Either way, the transgressor has to demonstrate remorse for the hurt and pain he or she caused to the deceived partner. Furthermore, that person needs to be present and hold vigil for the relationship for some time. He or she needs to become the guardian of the boundaries. He or she should pay extra attention to the hurt partner's feelings. They need to be the person who brings up the affair, reaffirms the value and importance of the relationship, and openly invites conversations about the meaning of the affair. If one genuinely wishes to save their relationship, he or she must venture into these waters no matter how discomforting it may feel.

The transgressor often wants to “move on” and forget the affair happened by newly presenting himself or herself as a loyal partner, and jumping back into their old life as a couple. The deceived partner simply can't, nor shouldn't, shift at that pace. Actually talking about the affair (in a careful, respectful way) – versus trying to quickly sweep it under the rug - begins to rebuild trust and may relieve the deceived partner's anxiety about the unspoken wonders and doubts of the details of the affair. However, much depends on the nature of the conversation, and how the dialogue is communicated around an affair. It is, to say the least, a sensitive subject, and sometimes revealing less information (particularly certain details) is better than a full confessional to protect the deceived partner from additional pain and hurt. Nevertheless, it is still crucial for the hurt partner to understand the layers of experience the affair represented for their partner. This is not a black and white process in terms of sharing or not disclosing the details of the affair, and a great deal depends on how the information is expressed and communicated. The ideal is to offer hope, meaning and healing to the deceived partner and ultimately the relationship.

This also begins to set the stage for the deceived partner to switch from jabbing and digging questioning to more meaningful and investigative questioning. Questions become less about “what and why” (“what did you do with him/her?”, “where would you meet?”, “what did you talk about?” -- as such questions offer factual information that simply causes more pain than healing) and transition to questions that seek the meaning of the affair (“what does it mean?”), as these are far more helpful and productive for long-term recovery. In therapy, it usually takes a good deal of work to get to this point. A lot of time is usually spent first listening and understanding the pain, hurt, loss and anger the deceived partner faced in the aftermath of the affair before real progress can be made. Learning to curb ones curiosity for details of the affair (i.e., probing for factual questions that only inflict more pain) is essential for the hurt partner to advance in the repair process.

Below is a list of the types of questions that go beyond facts and into the meaning of an affair:

  • What did the affair represent for you?
  • What drew or draws you there?
  • What do you find in it that you don't find at home?
  • Is it about who you become when you are inside the family?
  • Does it have anything to do with us?
  • If yes, what is it about you or us?
  • Is there a quest for an unknown ... a certain recklessness?
  • How has he or she thought of the deceived partner while the affair took place?
  • Did it feel like a betrayal?
  • Did it feel like transgression?
  • Does the transgressor feel like he or she was searching for an authentic self?
  • What was it like when you came home?
  • What was your ritual?
  • Did you like coming home?
  • What is it about us that you value?
  • Are you pleased that it's over?

Once the affair has been exposed and the understanding of the motives and meaning come to light, the deceived partner will often become more assertive and expressive about their own wants and needs (“You think I didn't want more! ... But I'm not the one who did it!”). The deceived partner may want to claim more independence, more of their self, because they no longer have to hold up the status quo of the relationship or marriage. At the same time, the deceived partner has to take accountability for their part as well, and look at the role they played in the relationship that resulted in the couple's disconnect or problems. Relationships are systemic and interactive, meaning that both partners are equally responsible and play a part in how the other person responds and acts.

An affair unleashes chaos, and this “new disarray” will inevitably lead to a new order in the couple's relationship. Both partners typically fear the loss of the relationship, and this new vulnerability, this element of mystery and of the unknown, can also lead the way to rekindling desire within a relationship. Some couples have deeper and better conversations after an affair because it opens up the relationship for an entirely new kind of truth. At the same time, couples can teeter-totter between “I love you” and “fuck you” in a span of minutes, with complex emotions simmering and sometimes exploding. Naturally, the rupture in the relationship can cause rapid fire transitions between love, sex and understanding to anger, frustration and even hatred.

In order to achieve a proper realignment of balance in the relationship, it is of upmost importance for the hurt partner to bring back a sense of self-worth and purpose by reconnecting with friends and family, devoting time to hobbies, and embarking on a personal quest to find joy, love, and recover their own identity. It is crucial, for the growth of the relationship and both partner's sense of self, to find meaning and seek connection outside of the relationship. Similar to the way in which desire in a relationship may be compromised where the partners become fused, reclaiming a sense of self is necessary for the hurt partner to recover from an affair. We must re-discover our independent self before we can re-establish a marriage after the trauma of an affair.

There are several ways infidelity organically impacts a relationship or marriage. For example, with some couples the act of infidelity turns into the epicenter of the relationship. Hostility and resentment predominate, with a tremendous focus on monitoring or hawking the actions and intentions of the transgressor. The relationship shifts from stability to instability and vice versa depending on the level of trust or suspicion. For other couples, certain family, personal or cultural principles and values take precedence and both partners decide whether they want to move on from the impact of infidelity rather quickly. They will sweep the affair under the rug, and it will often only be spoken about when there is another clash or crisis in the relationship. There are also couples that perceive infidelity as a real crisis causing immense pain, hopefully turning the experience into a productive one as they learn and grow from it. Such couples go beyond the hurt and slowly work through it by staying open minded and flexible, while demonstrating a great level of respect, forgiveness and redemption. Infidelity will put any relationship to the test, and not all couples recover from it. The latter example offered here is indicative of the type of couple that, even if more of an ideal (as many couples demonstrate some degree of both types of experience/behavior), shows the most success and hope in recovering from an affair.

Another essential element of repairing a relationship after infidelity is allowing for the deceived partner to experience how to trust again. The mistrust in the relationship needs to be addressed in order for the deceived partner to recover the trust and safety he or she once felt in their partner. The hurt partner needs to realize and accept that they will have to live with their mistrust for quite a while. The person who had the affair also needs to realize and understand that they are going to have to live with their partner's mistrust. At the forefront of the hurt partner's world there are two profound questions: “how could you do this to me?” and “how do I know you are not going to do this again?” Indeed, there may ultimately be an acknowledgement that desire and deception, at least to a certain degree, will always be a part of marriage and the dance of sexuality.

The journey of mending a relationship faced with infidelity can be challenging, if not excruciatingly painful. It will require each partner to look deep into their own selves, revisit and question their own values and principles, and perhaps for the first time, understand what it means to love while living in the unknown. Can love ever be fluid? Trust comes from “feeling” it in the other person. Knowing that you matter and that your partner has your back creates (and can resurrect) trust in a relationship or marriage. Trust must be rebuilt through action that demonstrates a commitment. It will not be established by forming a surveillance system (e.g. monitoring your partner's email, cell phone, meetings, etc.), because the brutal truth lies in knowing that if someone wants to cheat, they will find a way. Trust is the ability to live with whatever we will NOT know. There is no absolute “truth” … the truth may not even be fully known by the person who had the affair! Certain parts will always remain hidden.

Ultimately, every couple will decide what the legacy of infidelity will be in their relationship. In that context, every couple will have to ask themselves if one or multiple discoveries topple an entire relationship … an entire history? Your relationship or marriage may have accomplished much already. This doesn't mean then that everything was a lie or that one or multiple affairs define the truth of your relationship or marriage. Perhaps you have children that you raised, cared for ill parents, survived a health scare, overcame financial difficulties, supported each other through emotional traumas, etc., … and you did this all together. There is merit and credit that should be given to all that has been accomplished in a relationship before the decision can be made to stay or to leave.

In American culture, divorce carried shame and stigma for much of our history. Today, staying with your partner when infidelity is discovered is the new shame. In line with our puritanical social underpinnings, infidelity remains a “hush-hush” subject, one which is silenced rather than spoken about. Pop star Beyonce, wife of hip-hop artist Jay-Z, made a stand against this very hypocrisy when she released her visual album film Lemonade earlier this year. Her message in Lemonade was that standing by your spouse, relationship, and family post infidelity is gutsy … loyal … devoted … selfless … and, above all, shameless. It's certainly not the easy way out … but who ever said that marriage was easy?!

In the last chapter (part 5) of this blog series, I will talk about one of the most important factors in recovering from infidelity: the erotic rekindling. An affair, and any relationship where there is a lack of passion and desire, cannot be revitalized without the inclusion of erotic energy. Simply having more sex, going on “date nights”, or being nicer and more caring is most likely not enough to improve a relationship or marriage over the long term. Blending together many of the themes from my first four chapters, Part 5 will focus on passion, excitement, and mystery in the relationship … it's about bringing sexy back (and home).

I don't necessarily mean sexy lingerie, planning a romantic getaway, or a steamy lovemaking session. Those are all lovely, but we will be focusing on the larger context of sustaining a relationship's erotic play … making sure the foundation is there for those sexy sessions and romantic interludes.

Stay tuned.

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Dr. Olivia Schläpfer Colmer offers individual, couples and family therapy in Miami, FL. Her office is located at 4770 Biscayne Boulevard, Suite 1440, Miami FL 33137.

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